A hub for Annapolis' history

April 29, 2006|By JAMIE STIEHM | JAMIE STIEHM,SUN REPORTER

Yesterday's dedication of a new visitors center on Annapolis' Main Street was the culmination of one woman's long-held dream.

The $3 million HistoryQuest Center, which will hold its grand opening today and tomorrow, invites tourists to gaze out the windows of the 1790s former warehouse at the city's gems: the towering State House, the Naval Academy Chapel and the line of small shops facing City Dock.

All present the notion that Annapolis is "a museum without walls," in the words of Anne St. Clair Wright. The name of the grande dame of Annapolis' preservation movement adorns the modest facade. It was she who envisioned a place to tell the city's story.

Introducing visitors to the city and pointing them in the direction of their interests are the center's goals, said Gregory A. Stiverson, president of the Historic Annapolis Foundation. Established by Wright in 1952, the nonprofit organization runs the new center.

Selling tickets to trolleys and boat rides to make logistics more seamless is also part of its purview, he said.

For the first time, it will be easy to find the stories behind the streetscapes, Stiverson said.

Foundation officials used market research to test the concept of a HistoryQuest center. They concluded it would be useful to offer tourists a first-stop orientation, using maps, audio tours, window exhibits and a room with vivid images of the four Maryland signers of the Declaration of Independence.

A fast-moving video montage sweeps over mostly brick architecture, distinctive neighborhoods and the Chesapeake Bay and community activists.

"Every place needs a hub for preliminary history," said city Alderman Wayne M. Taylor after yesterday's formalities. "It gives a glimmer, increases the appetite for African-American history and other parts of the past. Then they [tourists] can rock and roll."

Scores of elected officials, allies, friends and relatives, including two of her three sons, remembered Wright as a redoubtable figure who spent decades making Annapolis a showpiece of survival.

"In an America of strip malls, Houstons and development, this is a terrific day," Arthur Wright, a son who is a retired Navy captain and geophysicist, said. "She would say, `Keep it, don't tear it down, because you can't rebuild it once it's gone.'"

Another son, Pickett, graduated from the Naval Academy in 1957 and also retired as a Navy captain. A third, Henry -- an archaeologist who developed his digging skills as a boy in Annapolis -- did not attend the dedication.

Before turning to preservation work, Wright honed her political and civic skills in the League of Women Voters. Among her achievements was leading the restoration of the 1765 William Paca House and Garden. The Annapolis building was a hotel in shabby condition when she started the project.

Lore has it that Wright, who had a passionate stance against urban renewal, never hesitated to write, call or visit lawmakers, architects, lawyers or other experts to urge them to join a crusade, even once sending an emissary to President Kennedy to stop the Naval Academy's proposed expansion into a residential area.

A granddaughter, Rebecca W. Stedman, 37, of Scarsdale, N.Y., recalled that Wright and her allies also rescued the HistoryQuest building -- known as the Sign of the Whale to some -- from bulldozers.

"She saved this building," Stedman said. She described her grandmother as "a lady and a cutting-edge Renaissance woman" who never wasted words when there was a task to be done.

Another campaign she waged was persuading the city to bury telephone poles and wires to restore the original sight lines to the State House and church.

Marion Warren, an Annapolis photographer who conspired with Wright by making slide shows for her, recalled making a photographic map showing what the city might have looked like if high-rise buildings and demolitions she opposed had occurred.

"Grandmother's notorious slide show was critical to illustrate what would happen," Stedman said.

Pringle Symonds, known as Wright's lieutenant, traveled from New York to attend the event. Symonds said, "She attacked from every angle, political, social, monetary. ... She never settled for second class."

Wright died in 1993. Yet, Alderman Richard E. Israel told the assembly, "Look at the city, and she is there."

jamiestiehm@baltsun.com

HistoryQuest at the St. Clair Wright Center, 99 Main St., will be open and free from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and tomorrow. Festivities include music, activities and strolling entertainment.

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